New Dany Boon film plays on France-Belgium prejudice
Making fun out of national stereotypes is not exactly standard comic fare these days, so a new comedy out this week in France represents something of a gamble for its star and director Dany Boon.
Set at a customs post on the French-Belgian border, Rien a Declarer (Nothing to Declare) is the long-awaited follow-up to Boon's 2008 blockbuster Bienvenu chez les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Sticks), which was seen by 20 million people and now ranks as the most popular French film ever.
The new film stays on Boon's home turf of the French far north, where the locals are known as Ch'tis, drink Ch'ti beer and speak the Ch'ti dialect.
But if Bienvenu chez les Ch'tis was about the cultural misunderstandings that arise when a French southerner blows in, Rien a Declarer plays on another set of stereotypes - about Belgians.
The year is 1993 and, following the creation of the EU's Schengen passport-free travel zone, customs posts are to be dismantled along the Franco-Belgian border.
Dany Boon plays customs officer Mathias, whose opposite number on the Belgian side seethes with a virulent and irrational hatred of all things French.
Belgian officer Ruben is played with panache by Benoit Poelvoorde, the actor who recently vowed to let his beard grow until a government in Brussels is finally formed.
Boon and Poelvoorde are condemned to work together when the authorities set up new bi-national mobile patrols.
There is a thwarted love affair - Mathias with Benoit's sister Louise - a drugs syndicate and plenty of ribaldry, before finally peace descends in another feel-good finish.
"When I was an arts student, I used to have to cross the border into Belgium and the guards gave me a hard time because of my long hair," Boon said in an interview with the BBC.
"Then recently I was back on the border, and these small villages which used to be dominated by the customs now just stand empty. It was so evocative - like those dust-blown streets in the Wild West."
Boon's cinema is based on the familiar and the comforting. Experimental it is not. This is why, to an outsider's eye, much of the humour seems extraordinarily old-fashioned.
The Poelvoorde character is motivated by a level of exaggerated ultra-nationalism last seen in mid-19th Century Prussia. In other glaring anachronisms, he goes to confession in church, and is driven to homicidal frenzy by the thought of his sister marrying a Frenchman.
Underlying his behaviour are the old national cliches - that the French think the Belgians are all thick, while the Belgians find the French arrogant and smug. The jokes abound.
Boon defends himself against charges that he is pandering to the stereotypes by describing his film as a satire on racism.
"I wanted to do a film about racism, but I wanted to make it funny. The way to do that, it seemed to me, was to focus on a French-Belgian situation. French and Belgians are basically the same - the same language, the same skin, the same religion - so the racism is utterly ridiculous.
"If I tried to make a comedy about a real racist situation - say with North Africans - then it would be too sensitive to work."
Some might say Boon is having his cake and eating it - playing for easy laughs and being high-minded at the same time.
But in France, the only question that matters is whether Rien a Declarer can live up to the success of its monumental predecessor, the Ch'tis.
For the critics, the answer so far has been a resounding "Non".
Le Figaro described the film as "empty, lazy and tired", while Liberation said it was a "reactionary fairy tale". Even crueller was Les Inrockuptibles magazine, which said it was the sort of film wartime leader Marshal Petain would ask to see on his deathbed.
It is true that the France as portrayed in Rien a Declarer is a kind of de-globalised never-never-land where people behave according to uncomplicated, reassuring patterns.
But then exactly the same could be said of Bienvenu chez les Ch'tis, and that was the biggest French hit of all time.
The fact is that today's French are suckers for anything that will make them forget their chronic sense of gloom.
Boon says he is upset by the critiques, but has a way of staying sane.
"I just get out the early reviews of les Ch'tis, and remind myself how the critics got that one wrong too."